Marks & Co.
84, charing Cross Rd.
London, W. C. 2
Your ad in the Saturday Review of Literature says that you specialize in out-of-print books. The phrase “antiquarian booksellers” scares me somewhat, as I equate antique with expensive. I am a poor writer with an antiquarian taste in books and all the things I want are impossible to get over here except very expensive rare editions, or in Barnes and Noble grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies.
I enclose a list of my most pressing problems. If you have clean secondhand copies of any of the books on the list, for no more than $5.00 each, will you consider this a purchase order and send them to me?
Very truly yours,
(Miss) Hélène Hanff
What an introduction to a story! From the first lines of this slender spine, we have a sense that this is going to be a healthy mix of intrigue, love, and quirkiness. As a bibliophile myself, I can appreciate Helene’s predicament. Her desire for worthy copies at Everyman prices is familiar to most lovers of books. Generic and impersonal “Barnes and Noble grimy, marked-up schoolboy copies” connotes a disrespect for the soul of a beloved story and a lack of relationship with the reader. Collectors of stories know that it is hard to not form an attachment to the books we love, and so, therefore, we want a spine that is worthy of our love.
As a child, my mom introduced me to a delightful old movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Ann Bancroft about a brassy, sassy, and delightfully funny paradox of a woman and her true story friendship with a buttoned-up, prim, and proper London bookshop. Helene is a New York woman author in 1949, who is looking for specific books which are nearly impossible to come by in American bookshops. Her above letter opens up a transatlantic correspondence that spans twenty years (and beyond). In her brassy and sassy way, she endears herself to Frank Doel and the rest of the shop clerks and secretaries at Marks and Co., 84 Charing Cross Road, London, England.
I loved the movie. I loved the epistolary relationship. I loved the way they all grew to care for each other. I loved the respect for good and great books that was celebrated throughout. I loved the spunk and humor and character. I loved all of it even more when I realized that it was a movie based on a book and a true story. This was an example of a movie remaining perfectly faithful to the book. The movie came about only after multiple stage adaptations – all overseen by Helene and scrupulously careful production experts.
In this charming story, Helene’s big personality is perfectly balanced by her generosity and affection. The staff at 84 Charing Cross Road appreciated her sincere love of excellent books, self education, lifelong learning, and good taste. Helene appreciated their care for her orders, their reasonable prices, and their work in preserving good books. It was a romance of ideas, and a love affair of books.
In the early 1950s, war was over but rations were still on. Helene had a British friend in her apartment building from whom she learned how poorly the Londoners were eating. Appalled, she found a whole series of excuses to send them food packages with real eggs, real meat and other things that that were so scare. It is impossible not to cry when you read the letters that the bookshop sent to her in thanks:
“Now then. Brian told me you are all rationed to 2 ounces of meat per family per week and one egg per person per month and I am simply appalled. He has a catalogue from a British firm here which flies food from Denmark to his mother, so I am sending a small Christmas present to Marks & Co.” – Helene, December 8, 1949
“I should just like to add that everything in the parcel was something that we either never see or can only be had through the black market. It was extremely kind and generous of you to think of us in this way and we are all extremely grateful.” – Frank Doel, 20th December, 1949
“Where is Leigh Hunt? Where is Oxford Verse? Where is the Vulgate and dear goofy John Henry, I thought that they’d be such nice uplifting reading for Lent and NOTHING do you send me. You leave me sitting here writing long margin notes in library books that don’t belong to me, some day they’ll find out I did it and take my library card away. I have made arrangements with the Easter bunny to bring you an Egg, he will get there and find that you have died of Inertia.” – Helene, March 25, 1950
“I have to thank you for the very welcome Easter parcel which arrived safely yesterday… I am sorry we haven’t been able to send you any of the books you want…” – Frank Doel 7th April, 1950
“We were all quite dazzled to see the meat. And the eggs and tins were so very welcome.” – Megan Wells, 5 April 1951
This across the sea and back again banter and friendship just grew and grew, leaving the reader with a very acute sense of loss when the little volume ends. Easily read in a lazy afternoon, it is the perfect length. Digested in one or two sittings and short enough to return to again and again.
When our book club read The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I was reminded of this powerful little true story and reached for it again after having forgotten it for many years. Since then I have read it three times and watched the movie once. Perfect for a rainy day, transition between harder and heavier books, or a long car ride, I will always feel like Helene and Frank are old friends who remind me that it is ok to love beautiful old books, be fussy about translation, and miss the quaint old bookshops (like Shop Around the Corner) that have been replaced by the impersonal and useless mega stores (like Fox Books).
Funny, charming, smart, endearing, and an ode to the preservation of Old Western Culture, 84 Charing Cross Road makes me a better reader, a better lover of books, and deepens my romantic sensibilities about book culture. Some time, soon, I hope, I will read my way through Helene’s book orders. I want to read her John Henry Newman, John Donne, Oxford Verse, Pepys’s Diaries, etc. I want to get the “Professor Q” education.
Update: Squeeeeeeee! The audiobook is now available in the US through Audible! You can find it here.